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I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

13. Cross Face Cradle

More than ready. Even though Cuppa Joe’s has none of the ”higher functions” Chase mentioned, it was just like a date for me because I had never been there. Unlike the slimy self-service cafeterias on my Starvation Level Meal Plan, Cuppa Joe’s is an outsider’s emporium. Not run by students. Did “Joe” even exist? The little shrunken man at the cash register wore no nameplate – but I was innocent enough to believe that a sandwich paid for with cash money had to be better than cafeteria slop.

We chose the darkest booth at the back. I was thinking it would be a great place to study if the light weren’t so dim – I swear they fitted those fake Tiffany lamps with 30-watt bulbs. You could maybe wear a miner’s helmet. But then I’ve always wanted to be wherever won’t let me in. An inability to see into the darkness outside our own circle of weak light made it feel downright intimate. I gnawed on my roast beef and sprout sandwich – would have been good if the bread was fresh — and summoned up the Big Question.

“Why are you so mad at Corso?“

He drummed his fingers on the greasy Formica. “He took something from me.”
My mind returned to my Christmas scarf. He took something from everyone.
“Was it when you worked for him?“

“I knew him from before.” More astutely than I ever could, Chase changed the subject. Lawyer. I’m telling you. “Do you think we really soul- traveled?” The key to subject changing is to introduce a subject the other person is dying to talk about.

I perked up. “Unless it was “astral projection” or something.” Referencing Cadwallader’s book. But could anything coming from Corso be trusted? “We obviously saw stuff in Corso’s place that was real. Or he wouldn’t have gotten so upset. It’s like…have you ever done that before?”
Chase shook his head. “I’ve felt like I was outside myself plenty of times. And I’ve dreamed. But I haven’t actually projected. Wild isn’t it?”

We touched hands across the table. Looking at his bandaged wrist made me wince; when we touched I felt the “missing piece” lock into place. We were stronger. My migraine was dissipating. With Chase around, I had courage even I could recognize.

I said, “You know what was strange? That after you left, Corso really didn’t act interested in our stories. I mean, I thought that was the whole point, but he acted like he didn’t care what happened to us when we were unconscious. Even though it actually worked – we achieved what he said he was trying to achieve. But he rushed us through our stories! Can you figure that out?”

“I told you,” Chase asserted, “This experiment isn’t about what he says it’s about. He never tells the truth. I’ll bet he thinks sleep-soaring is actually not possible, just a plausible carrot to will keep us jumping forever. He’s really good at figuring out what story someone will buy.”

He sure was. Kind of shaming that he dangled a scholarship over me at the college fair and I bit bit bit. Was I easy? But what else could I have done? I needed to be here. Wrong things and right things were inextricably mixed together. Was this what adulthood was like?
“You know…at my first conference with him…I think he hypnotized me,” I confessed.

“Of course he did. He’s a past master of abusive hypnosis.”
“Abusive hypnosis? What’s that?”

“He tampers with the will. We can fight him by subverting him, and we can fight him by resisting him. But most of all we need to fight him by exposing him. Sunlight is just what these guys can’t stand.”

People had been tampering with my will as long as I could remember. It’s the definition of “education” to some people. All I could hear was Corso’s voice saying, “everything you fear has already happened.”

Unsettling phrase! What did it mean? At the time I took it for granted that he referred to the horrible daycare imbroglio, that somehow I had been exposed. But Corso seemed like the type who would always want you to think he knew more than he did. My manager at Fluffernutter’s was like that; wanting me to think she was omnipotent. Corso intended to scare me because terrified people just can’t think straight.

The music changed. The robotic synthesizer slap-fight pileup of the Killers’ Heaven Ain’t Close In A Place Like This, gave way to R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion. I like a bistro that plays the classics. Forever after that, it was our song. The music embraced us like a ritual.

The music ebbed and flowed around us, forming a tent of extra privacy, helping me and Chase relax and move together. We were alone, but not alone in a place ofsafety. Trust is key, but faith too plays a part.

“I thought that I heard you laughing I thought that I heard you singI think I thought I saw you try..”
It was like the music whispered secrets we feared to tell. I could feel Chase wanting to kiss me again, and I wanted to kiss him, too. We were emerging from each other’s shadows and becoming real. Now we were much farther along on our journey to…somewhere. But where were we going? Heads together, we whispered.

“You told he sold Corso soul to the Devil,” I reminded him.

“Did I?” Chase smiled faintly. “It sounds like me. Corso may like buddying up to power, but believe me, he’s always plotting a takeover.”

“I’ve heard the Devil doesn’t keep the deals the makes,” I said.
Chase chewed around the edges of his sandwich. “Overreaching is always the end. Maybe Corso’s met his match.”

“Maybe he’s the Devil, “ I speculated.

“Maybe every bully is,” said Chase, his lips touching first my cheek, then the corner of my mouth.
“I hate him messing with our heads when our heads are all we have,” I murmured. “And the worst part is we gave him permission to do it.”

“We couldn’t know what we were agreeing to,” said Chase, framing my face with both his hands. “And now we’re taking it back.”

“You know what I didn’t like about our out of body experience?”
“How obnoxious I turned out to be?”

“No, no and no. The fact that – This is hard to say without sounding lame – but that I was still me. I thought I would be all soul. Just my spirit – you know. Free from self.” Free to be anybody and everybody.

“But how would I have recognized you?” asked Chase.
He had me there. And I got it. I absolutely got it. Our experience wasn’t about leaving the planet; it was about seeing earthly things with fresher eyes. Freshest eyes.

Chase kissed a line along the edge of my lips. “Your body is important to me. I wish –“
I knew what he was about to say, psychically or with the knowledge of love. He wanted me to care for the shell he lived in the way he cared for mine. His body was important to me because it was him. The way he carried his shoulders, the spark of intelligence in his eyes, his battle- scarred, rescuing hands were as important to me as the gleam in his eye. His physicality centered mine; centered my world.

“Your body is very important to me,” I said. And the world slowed down so we could kiss.
That’s what made it extra horrible when out of the darkness a body reared up. I swear my heart almost stopped.

“Is this the guy?” asked Bex.

There was Bex, larger than life and a little the worse for wear; wearing his holey Conformity is a Social Disease t-shirt and his skunk- oiled motorcycle jacket. The uncertain lighting lent fearful hollows to his features. You could see what he would look like as an old man, as a corpse, as a skeleton. Maybe he was all those things already. He puffed out his cheeks as if his lungs had constricted and he couldn’t get air.

“Is this the guy?” he demanded again. “Or is it the geezer who looks like your granddad?”
Why did this have to happen around Chase? Wouldn’t he disrespect me forever for having even a momentary association with this guy? How could I recover from this humiliation? I wanted to say, “I didn’t choose him – he chose me” but it wasn’t the complete truth. I had to face the horrible responsibility of my lazy choice. It seems you can’t summon up an out-of- body experience, just because you need one to escape from awkward social situations. Drat. I would have to settle for sinking through the floor.

“Bex,” I said with every ounce of my tampered will, “Get out of here. Scram. We agreed it’s over. You don’t belong here.”

Chase’s face was a study. He was taking it all in. He said very calmly to Bex, “Just what part of “Scram” don’t you understand?”

Bex ignored Chase like he was invisible. Chase’s body was not important to him. Not to Bex, the big guy, who’s mean and strong and walks like a swagger coach. Cutting Chase completely out, he planted his hands on the table and loomed in, right up in my face. Destroyed our circle of trust and set the Tiffany lamp to bouncing its weak light in crazy circles.

“What is this about really? Are you angling for, like, a ring?Because that is bogus. Sue me for thinking you were something better than that. Are we talking white picket fence here?” He almost spat.

I was mortified. If I was so terrible why was he pursuing me? I think in some strange way his battle was with himself. Leave me out of it! Seeing the way his mind operates I knew I had escaped in the nick of time. I tried pushing the table back so I could stand up but those tables don’t move. I was trapped.

Chase was closer to the target; he rose up in a leisurely way. Shorter than Bex by a good four inches.

“You’ve hit your due date, buddy,” he said. “You’ve expired.”Bex still seemed to think he could drag me out of there. He reached out to touch my coat but I smacked his hand away.

“Come outside and say it to my face,” he demanded as the light rhythmically exposed his hollow core and bloodshot eyes. “From your own mouth. I deserve to hear it from you.”

Not on his life — or in this case, my life. I was actually afraid of him. “I said goodbye months ago,” I told him in a voice so loud people turned to stare. “It’s over. Respect that I know when I’ve had enough. You said you have too! You don’t even like me! Go away.”

“I deserve respect,” shouted Bex, spreading his shoulders and shaking his arms. His face darkened. That five o’clock shadow was ten after midnight. A sour animal stink poured off him. I could tell escalation was what he’d come in for; that he didn’t really care about anything else and it was pure myth that I had any choice in the matter. Bex was acting in his own drama all by himself.

Chase stepped out ofthe booth in a relaxed way, grabbed Bex by bicep and ankle, and folded him like a pocket comb.

At exactly that moment the wizened little cashier in the long apron shuffled into the fray. Had Joe, unlike God, decided to prove his existence for once and for all?
“Joe says keep it down,” he contributed; shifting a wad of what I hoped was gum from one side of his toothless mouth to the other. “You can’t hang out here without you order something.”
I was crestfallen. No miracles here.

Chase hauled Bex to his feet, dusted him off, and sent him spinning into Joe’s arms.
“This guy’s from out of town,” said Chase over Bex’s head. “He’s not even a student. He just came here to start a fight.”

My fallen chest expanded. Chase was miracle enough for me.
“He attacked me,” complained Bex in an infantile whine.

“He’s got a sandwich,” said Joe’s minion, pulling on Bex’s elbow, seemingly unintimidated by superior size. “You got nothing. You can take it from me or you can take it from the cops.”
“I’ll order, I’ll order,” protested Bex, with his fatally flawed timing. Said mini-Joe, “You get yours to go.”

Bex allowed himself to be led away, shouting over-the-shoulder threats. “Full on war!” and the perennial classic, “You’ll be sorry!”

I put my head down on the table and moaned. Chase sat beside me and patted my shoulder.
“Can I say how much more I appreciate your body now?” I writhed. “Or is it too late now that you’ve seen him? What did you just do?”

Chase laughed. “It’s never too late for body praise,” he said and “Cross-face cradle. Always catches ‘em unawares.”

Trying to wipe Bex’s slime from my face I realized I was trembling. Allergic to brutality. And now violence. I swear.

“Nice guy,” teased Chase. “I can see what you liked about him.”
I was fated to be tortured by both of them apparently.

“I can’t even begin to apologize,” I groveled. “He’s so awful. He’s from my hometown. We dated really casually, we weren’t even exclusive. I broke up with him months ago. I never thought he’d take it like this. He makes such a big deal about not caring about anything. Now he’s hanging out around the campus taking pictures of me! I’m scared to go out.”

“Probably realized he was stupid to let you go,” shrugged Chase. “Watch how horrible I am when you try getting rid of me. “

“That’s not even funny,” I said, and he said,
“You still have feelings for him?”

“Sure,” I said. “Rage and revulsion.” And now fear, although I hated admitting it. Fear is like that houseplant from outer space; if you so much acknowledge its existence it takes over everything. Like the Chinese fortune cookies say; Fear: down payment on a debt you might not even owe.
“Let’s report him,” said Chase. “Swear out a peace bond against him. Let the rent-a-cops toss him every time they see him. Come on, I’ll walk with you.”

I tried to imagine raging Bex constrained by anything called a “peace bond.” It was laughable. “I tried that already,” I argued. “Argumentative me” is all Chase’s doing; when hanging with Bex I was go-along, get-along. “They gave me a list of phone numbers you know, like Make A Wish Foundation and Dial A Prayer. I’m hoping maybe now he’s seen you that you scared him away. Maybe he’ll just go. ” Ever hopeful Jazz.

“You got a make-a-wish thing going on all by yourself,“ said Chase, “Although sometimes bullies are scared straight when anyone stands up to them.“

I wrung my hands. “I mean, what about his job? He has to work – he’s always complaining about money – his boss never gives him time off. I don’t know what story he told them, but he has to go back eventually.”

“Let him worry about his own problems,” said Chase. “They’re not your problems any more. Ready to go? There’s a back way out.”

Bex wasn’t waiting for us outside. Visibly. As one who had explored it, now I had to worry about the immaterial world.

“Could you just walk me to Hadleigh? I’ll talk to security again tomorrow.” Iwasfeelingsortlight-headed.Sick,asifthatsandwichhad done me no good. The migraine generated by poor Howk’s shattered world was back with reinforcements.

“I promise.”

“If that’s what you want,” said Chase. “Remember, I’m always available for guard duty. Day or night.” He stopped to put both his hands
on my shoulders. “Why don’t you come back to my place? I shouldn’t let my lucky charm out of my sight.”

Tempting offer but I wasn’t ready. He had idealized me. In spite of soul-travel we still didn’t know each other well enough. He had fantasies about me that he would definitely stop having if I didn’t clean myself up and change my clothes. Koo was right to complain, “sleep research” left us tireder than ever. I needed to close my eyes and sleep as long as I possibly could.
I pulled away from his safety. “I think I need to be alone tonight.”
“Whatever you say.”

We resumed walking, hips and thighs touching, our special rhythm thankfully asserting itself. Or did I just need him to hold me up?

Chase continued, “Would I be a stalker if I suggested breakfast tomorrow? We can strategize our next Corso invasion. Sunday is his kickboxing class so the possibilities are endless.”

The thought of arranging my life around Corso’s schedule made my migraine kick like a mule. I had to cover my brain with my hands, as if my skull wasn’t doing a very good job.

“I need to sleep,” I moaned. “Do you see all that blue light, too? Am I hallucinating? Am I having a stroke?”

Chase gasped as if someone slapped him into life.
“There’s blue light all right,” he said, “Police cars. Over by Hadleigh.”

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